It’s Time to Reboot Our Thinking About Adult Learners in a Digitally Transformed World
As our economy enters a new era, so too must the world of postsecondary education.
Twenty-five years after the Internet became commercially available, post-high school learning—which for adults is now truly often a life-long endeavor—is now a diverse ecosystem of options. Beginning in 2020, the digital transformation of the economy and labor market took a giant leap forward. In parallel, online education went mainstream as educational providers at all levels— including colleges and universities—were forced to experiment with remote learning, long a preferred vehicle for part-time students engaged in lifelong learning.
The economic dislocations of the pandemic shined a spotlight on the urgent need for worker reskilling and upskilling, which has become a top policy priority for cities, states and the federal government. This direction is also fueled by a wave of new coalitions, non-profits and philanthropic investments. For many years prior to the pandemic, degree completion for the 36 million U.S. adults who have some college but no degree had been a major policy focus. Adults over the age of 25 represent roughly 40 percent of enrollment in U.S. higher education. That’s nearly 8 million learners. These are big numbers—making educating this group a societal and economic imperative, as well as a very large market opportunity.
During the pandemic, though, 37 percent of adults pursuing education abandoned their educational goals due to financial hardships, changes at work, or lack of access to programs, based on public opinion polling from Strada Education Network—a situation characterized as a “national crisis.” The latest enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows adult undergraduate enrollment in steep decline. For example, community college enrollment declined 11 percent in spring 2021 compared to the year prior. The California Community College system alone lost 190,000 students between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020.
Meanwhile, demand is booming for flexible, digital offerings. In Coursera’s second quarter 2021 results reported last week, the company reported revenue growth of 38 percent on the strength of global demand for reskilling, and “sustained demand for career-oriented professional certificates targeted at entry-level digital jobs.” Similarly, online education company 2U, which partners with many leading universities, reported 36 percent growth in its “alternative credentials” business segment in its most recent quarter. The company’s recently announced $800 million acquisition of EdX reflects the growing demand for and value of short-form learning, online courses, and microcredentials. Demand is also surging for microcredentials awarded by companies, industry associations, and other non-institutional providers, which have increased around 75 percent over the last year.
It might shock many to learn that the official pre-pandemic government forecasts of adult learner enrollment suggested not growth, but a 2 percent decline by 2028.
What’s happened is adult learning is rapidly transitioning to a more online, digital model—and it is increasingly taking place through new platforms and providers, and in non-institutional or non-traditional contexts. This trend demands study and structure, as our thinking related to adult learning must evolve beyond constructs created in the last century to reflect this new, more digital reality.
A perennial myth in higher education is that adult learners represent an inevitably growing “new majority,” a term that was coined in a 1974 paper to reflect the market dynamics then. The share of all college and university enrollment that students over age 25 accounted for peaked decades ago, and overall adult enrollment in 2011. It is true that adults are an underserved, underappreciated audience within traditional higher education—and this is a crucial area that I’ve devoted a significant share of my own career to. But growing enrollment of working adults is not simply demographic destiny. In fact, we have many years of evidence that higher education’s existing structures and incentive systems are not well-positioned to serve adult learners. It might shock many to learn that the official pre-pandemic government forecasts of adult learner enrollment suggested not growth, but a 2 percent decline by 2028.
As our longstanding structures and policies struggle, it’s time for a reboot.
A ‘Both/And’ Approach to Degrees and Alternative Credentials
The aforementioned data is evidence of the growing appeal of non-degree credentials, in a world where skills demands are changing at a faster pace than most colleges can keep up with. Yet the market value and employer perception of new forms of digital non-degree credentials is still relatively unknown—an area my colleagues and I are actively researching. It is quite early in the development of the digital credential market, and this is precisely why this area demands more research and thoughtful attention.
A significant share of major employers are actively moving beyond arbitrary degree requirements for jobs and embracing skills-based hiring practices, especially as recruiting practices go more digital. However, this doesn’t mean that the degree—while imperfect—should be cast aside. Degrees are still the gold standard in hiring and are by far the largest and most in-demand segment of the adult learning market. There is a giant opportunity to augment, improve and adapt existing degrees for working professionals, and to do so in ways that leverage data and online connectivity between institutions and industry.
One proven area is to design “career pathways” by combining individualized student support services with a roadmap for choosing, entering and completing degree programs. This is a process that can be facilitated by online services and coaching; complemented by microcredentials; or informed by job market analytics. Many institutions recognize how rapidly the adult learning market is changing—and are supporting colleges by designing new frameworks for adult student success based on research and evidence. That’s the focus of our current project with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
There is also the new concept of “incremental credentialing.” This breaks degrees and learning into smaller units, so that learners can earn credentials that have immediate and recognized value on their way to a more traditional degrees—or exit with meaningful credentials rather than just credits, as happens in our current all-or-nothing approaches. Qualification frameworks have been developed and pilots are taking shape, led by the Credential As You Go initiative at SUNY Empire State College. Another project, from Workcred and its partners, focuses on embedding certifications into bachelor’s degree programs, enhancing the job market relevance of adult degree programs.
What these efforts have in common is they are anchored in creating entirely new frameworks and tools and hinge on cross-sector collaboration–all of which are needed to scaffold a more-fluid marketplace of digital (and traditional) learning options for adult learners. It will be important to create a more coherent structure than the Wild West atmosphere of the current moment. Even so, dethroning the primacy of the degree and elevating digital alternatives will take many years (assuming it does happen). Unbundling, improving and refashioning existing degree programs is a key first step toward a more modular, work-integrated future.
Deeper Employer Engagement: Beyond Alignment and Toward Work-Learning Integration
Over the last two decades, the higher education sector worldwide has been pressured to enhance graduates’ employability and deliver outcomes that are more aligned with the needs of the job market. Adult learning is inherently often about working professionals, so this sphere demands not just “alignment” with workforce needs, but truer integration with employers.
A major challenge here is the lack of employer engagement in postsecondary education, and the difficulties of sustaining it. We began to explore and tackle this issue as just one workstream in a recent National Science Foundation funded virtual convening to forge an “applied science to support working learners,” organized by professor Mitchell Stevens at Stanford University. One idea emerging from this discussion is building a clearer business case and demonstration of ROI for employers to have a seat at the postsecondary education table.
Employers, of course, see colleges and universities as providers of talent, certified with credentials, and trainers of their workforces. Experiential learning models that can apply to working adults (versus traditional internships) are certainly a growing area of employer interest—and these models hinge on employers making available job opportunities and projects for learners. However, making significant change will require a broader adoption than just a few experiments by Fortune 100 companies—and will include the full spectrum of small and medium businesses.
Some employers are notably developing their own alternatives to traditional postsecondary education options, by offering workforce-related credentials to the public. Strada Education Network’s recent analysis of non-degree credential holders found that 1 in 10 adults earned their credential from a business or private company. As this parallel higher education system emerges—as both a competitive threat and an opportunity for partnership for colleges and universities—learners are presented with an expanding range of new digital options. Yet our understanding of this trend, like other areas, remains quite limited.
In short, it’s a new world as far as the ecosystem of learning options for adults, and so education leaders at all levels need to reboot their thinking, and monitor and analyze these emerging trends.